By: Karla Fetrow
Previously: Although the council meeting ends in an uproar, Vandeweerd feels there is a good chance of swaying the independent and neutral countries to his side. He attempts to mollify Oyagek while the new majority favorite, Troyal Barker, captures the big screen. Oyagek, however, receives a distracting call from his brother, Nathan. In their experience, Nathan always meant problems.
The Stealth 290 was probably the fastest and the quietest of the hydro-light copters, but the whooshing of the blades overhead still seemed obtrusive in the scant jungle clawing out with trailing fingers at the beginnings of the barrens. “I can smell the stench from up here,” muttered Nathan Oyagek. He loosened the breathe-rite around his neck and fastened it across the bridge of his nose. Sulphuric gasses swirled in a lazy haze across the stripped earth, mingling with radiated dust molecules, rippling sometimes in a toxic discharge with methane pockets. “How do people live here?”
“Only the mutate active do,” said Paulson. “They’ve adapted, to a certain extent.”
They had heard of the adaptations although the mutate active were banned from the grid. Twisted limbs, distorted features, scrambled internal organs; they shouldn’t have been able to survive at all, yet somehow they had adapted to the barrens. They were born of humans, but they weren’t really human. They were mutating into something different, something that tolerated the chemicals that had altered them, something that needed very little water and ate from the spoiled fruits of the jungle.
They had kept to the narrow jungle since first leaving Oaxaca City, their flight pattern following the strip of greenery north until it reached the expanded Mojave. There had once been cities and towns along the coast line; Acapulco, Mazatlan, Los Mochis, Guaymas, gone now, washed out to sea during the cataclysm. All that was left was a rapidly fading memory. As the copter left the last straggling tree behind it, it swooped upwards, propelling backwards the poisonous dust that yet tried to claim a little more wasteland.
Nathan would have preferred a meeting place closer to Burbank, but the convention in San Fernando had forced him to join his brother on the South American Continent to avoid arousing suspicion as to his activities. He had excused himself from council with the thinly veiled excuse that Maya Canals required his expertise at a new recycling facility in the legitimate ruling capital.
Not that the council really cared. Their minds wandered off when he began explaining things like water reclamation, new desalination technology, and the latest triumph to the Alaskan Corporation science team, the water recovery enhancement project. It wasn’t science they were interested in, only the quickest route to their own comfort. Bureaucrats and babbling idiots; all of them; absorbed with their quotas, their prices, their numbers and their own inflated views of their importance. They talked, and said nothing. They made motions, and did nothing. They were a waste of time.
He said as much to Paulson. “Then why does your brother spend so much time attending the summit meetings?” He asked.
“My brother thinks a merger with Aqualung Recovery would make us less vulnerable to federal attacks and water rate controls. This is what I personally believe. We don’t need them. Those are our plants filling the bellies of Burbank with water, our plants operating on the Great Lakes.”
“And the lease sales are coming up for review.”
“The lease sales be hanged. If they fail to renew us, we’ll take down the whole damned system.”
The copter circled in on its destination, a scorched field close to the nearly defunct town of Hermasilla.
There would be no snoopers here, no spies for the Central Government, still trying to keep its headquarters in Mexico City by maintaining an alliance with the Federal United States. It was ironic and fitting that the federal district of Mexico and of the United States had clung together through the purges and the catastrophe, believing their union would somehow keep them anchored as their states began to dissolve, yet in the end, their seats as world powers were nothing more than a sham, a token gesture like that given to archaic royalty. You made them believe they had a hand in the decision making process, when in reality, they were only window dressing.
As Nathan began his descent from the barely settled craft, Paulson prepared to follow behind him. “Stay here,” directed the Chief Engineer. “If there’s any trouble, I’ll flash a three second guide beam. Call Tobias, than get the hell out. I’m not worried about the federales, only La Arana. She has her own agenda. If she’s formed a partnership with the Davei Chan, she could be dangerous.”
Nathan walked out past the parameters of the landing party, his windjammer flapping around his ankles. He knew that despite his instructions to Paulson, two or three liaison strikers would be creeping behind him, their wits as sharp as the blades by their side. Paulson would stay behind, but barely. He would be sitting as far out from the copter as he dared without gaining reproof, and stay glued to his com-link. All that was lacking was the Chinese. Where the hell were they?
As though in answer, four black hooded figures rose up from behind the sand dunes, bristling with heat finders and laser loaders. Nathan held both arms in the air, his hands empty except the com link. “Ni hao,” he called. “Jin tian feng hen da.”
“The wind is always strong here,” said one of the figures dourly, stepping out from the group. “And your pronunciation of our language is still atrocious.”
“Zhau Jiao Shou, not everyone received the benefits of your education.”
“Supplied by the ample consumption of Western appetites, for which I am grateful,” the speaker continued in a voice laced with sarcasm.
“That it may will be, but it has brought us both a lucrative income. Did you bring the shipment?”
The Chinese leader spoke briefly to his three companions, who first shook their heads, then shrugged and nodded. “Follow me.”
Nathan hesitated, trailing a little behind, peering anxiously to see if the striker unit was following, and if so, if they would be noticed. There was no perceptible sign of a tail, and his thumb hovered anxiously the signal button on his link. “Relax,” scoffed Shou, “have I let you down yet?”
“We’re in hostile territory. How do I know you don’t do business with La Arana?”
“La Arana? Is that what you’re worried about?” The professor let out a rare chuckle. “She still makes patty cakes of hashish. If she didn’t have a clientele among Cascadia purists, she would have been out of business a long time ago. She is a barbarian, Oyagek, an uneducated mouse that seeks to get in the wheels of the machinery. She has no stealth planes, no snoopers, no federal allies. The barrens are hers simply because nobody else wants them.”
The Chinese landing party had been successfully hidden by a deep ravine between two wrinkled rolls of sand dunes. A tent had been placed near their copter, a camouflage tan and brown close replica to his own. It disconcerted Nathan to think the Chinese used Western technology in their flight design, but the fault had been the federal’s who had left their debris strewn over every Continent by the end of the two great purges. After that, there was nothing easier than salvaging the abandoned aircraft and copying it, so that now, not a single country had a military advantage over another. The purges had taken care of that and the catastrophe had ended the energy driven economic base. Now, all people wanted; all they prayed for and desired was food and water; and kief.
The purges had left the world with two major drugs; the legal pharmaceuticals produced by London and New York, and the not so legal, but highly popular production of kiev. Kiev was liquid THC, distilled and mixed with opium tar, then poured over pressed bricks of hashish. Despite its shady background, nearly everyone owned a kief pipe.
They entered the tent and Nathan cautiously removed his breathe-rite. The first thing to enter his nostrils was the thick, heavy scent of kief. He felt almost dizzy and sat down on a folding chair willingly. “No Arana,” said the professor, waving his arms. “Only us.”
Shou opened a large slat board crate. Inside were the earth brown bricks stacked neatly on top of each other. Taking a knife, he carved away a small corner, crumbled the substance and stuffed it into a pipe. “Twenty-five kilos of the finest.”
“You go first,” nodded Nathan.
Shou smiled tightly. “One of these days your paranoia will be your ruin. I don’t do pleasure before business, but if it comforts you, a small communion for our mutual friendship.”
Nathan watched closely as the professor passed a flame lightly over the bowl and inhaled a thick, bluish smoke. His hands were long and cultivated; soft from office work. His fingers tapped gently over the pipe stem as he handed the vessel containing all they had risked to acquire to Nathan. “Careful. This is a particularly potent batch.”
It was several minutes before he was aware of any more words. The walls rushed in around him and the wind roared, waving up like the ocean and crashing, then rushing out again. He was suddenly incredibly tranquil. The wind could not touch him. It’s roaring anger dimmed to a low buzz, the Chinese guard laid back, their arms cradling their guns, talking and laughing. By the purges, this was good! He dialed his com link. “Tobias. I need to talk with you. It’s urgent.”
“I can’t right now. I’m having drinks with Vandeweerd.”
“Drinks with Vandeweerd? That’s good. I can’t wait to hear all about it. Tell him you have an important engagement.”
He could hear his brother’s vexation in his voice. “Give me five minutes.”
Nathan snapped closed his link. “Send your goons off. My men will be here soon.”
“There is the matter of credit.”
“Send them off first. Then we’ll talk.”
Shou singled to his guards who trooped off one by one, leaving only Nathan, Shou and the crates. It was just enough time to re-dial Tobias. “I need a transfer. Thirty -two units of pure reclaimed water into Shou Manufacturing and Associates.”
“Nathan! That exceeds the quarterly quota of pure water resources to the Indo-China Empire by seven percent!”
“So, juggle a few books. Reclaimed water doesn’t have a regulatory clause. We can sell it for as high as we want to who we want, when we want.”
“But the Alliance, brother…”
“Who cares about the goddamned Alliance? Just don’t tell them, that’s all. They haven’t taken a measuring tape to every lake in the country. They only know what goes on at the recovery plants. Tobias, this deal stands to make us a lot of credits. Think what you could do with those credits, Tobias. Thirty-two units. It’s a one time deal. After that, they buy water from the collectors, like everyone else. I promise you.”
He could hear the faint click-click as Tobias did some computations. “Nenana Savewel has had an especially good year. Frequent rains have brought up their reservoirs by thirty percent, and they’ve had to transfer run-offs to the Talkeetna holding facility. We can transfer the surplus without notice, but I’ll need 2,500 credits in their accounts folder by next week.”
“I’ll run them through as a donation to the general fund.”
“Be quick about it. I mean it. And don’t ask this particular favor of me again.”
“Tobias, you worry too much. Alliances aren’t made in law chambers. They are made behind the scenes. Your little friend, Vandeweerd, will never get Stanton off our backs, but I will.”
“Stanton has a new friend; the President of Texas.”
“Texas? Texas? When the hell did it join the International Council?”
“Texas was officially taken off the list of hazardous waste land and recognized as a potential developing country three years ago. They, umm, excel in the manufacturing of communication devices, including Angel Halo imaging and are fifty percent share holders with Popular News Inc. Crops are still meager but recent improvements in hydro-cell units have regained irrigated, arable land around the Houston Delta region and reclaimed partial usage of the Rio Grande. It seems, however, their largest export is pigs.”
“Yes. Wild pigs. They began running amok after the flood and seemed to have survived better than most of the human population. The biggest problem now is keeping the pigs out of their crops, so they shoot them and export the bacon.”
“And these wild pigs people have a president?”
“You might keep it in better perspective by saying, PNI people. PNI has a huge following and President Barker is, well… popular. Watch your step. Mexico Central Government is backing Stanton and so is Texas. Stay in the neutral zone.”
Nathan glanced at Shou, who was smiling peacefully, his eyes slightly glazed. “I’m good.”
Nathan snapped closed his link and slipped it back onto his wrist. “Done. Thirty-two units transferred to your account of Nenana’s finest distilled pure water. You won’t get a better deal.”
“Perhaps not,” murmured the Chinese. “The Texas man… He sells pigs?”
“I don’t know. You should ask him. I’m sure he lives somewhere in this hell hole.”
“Maybe he’s friends with La Arana.”
Nathan frowned, a little perplexed by the meaning of the words as Professor Shou disappeared through the tent flaps. A moment later, he heard the whirl of a copter take off. They had left him the tent. He sat back and waited, taking comfort in his meager shelter, his cargo scattered around him. When his team burst through the entrance, he brushed himself off, and slid the breathe-rite up over his face. “You’re two minutes off,” he reproved.